Rather contemporary for a saint, Francis Possenti was an unusual combination of “young man about town” and ancient ascete.
Born in Assisi, one of 13 children of a distinguished lawyer, Francis was given at baptism the Christian name of Assisi’s great patron saint. Indeed, his youth somewhat resembled that of St. Francis of Assisi. Since his father, like that of Francis Bernardone, was prosperous, Francis Possenti had time for diversions and adventure. He got into scraps, went hunting, rode horseback, played penny ante, smoked tobacco, patronized theater and opera. He enjoyed dancing, and was kiddingly called by his friends “Il Damerino” (“The Ladies’ Man”); although Maria Pannechetti, the one girl who was fondest of him and whom his father wanted him to marry, did not interest him that much. If all this sounds terribly “worldly”, it was actually very light-hearted. He was simply full of teen-age fun, and well-liked for his happy disposition.
Along the line, however, he became convinced that he was called to the religious life, and specifically to the Passionist Fathers. His father was put out by this decision. Not that he minded having a priest for a son – he had one already, a Dominican. But he had had other plans for the quick-witted, sociable Francis and he thought the Passionists too strict. So when the monastery sent the son its letter of acceptance, the father hid the letter. Finally, however, Francesco left anyhow for the Passionist novitiate at Morrovalle. Then he was given the religious name “Gabriel of Our Lady of Sorrows.” Meanwhile the father still had not consented, nor would he attend his son’s profession of vows a year later.
From the day of Gabriel’s entrance into the Congregation of the Passion, his aim was to achieve perfection by the rule; to become a perfect Passionist. This included the cheerful acceptance of tuberculosis, which was to bring about his death when only 24. He also had towards Our Lady a strong but manly devotion. He was no sentimentalist. His monastic life preparing for the priesthood — that he did not live to receive — made Gabriel a secluded, non-public figure. Yet there was one day during this “retiring” period when he came forth from the monastery on a mission that recalled the vigorous Francesco Possenti of earlier years.
In the mid-nineteenth century, Victor Emmanuel II, the King of Piedmont, was engaged in a series of military and political campaigns to unite and gain control of Italy. During this period the various Italian provinces were overrun by Piedmontese soldiers engaged not only in battle, but in plunder. For safety’s sake, the Passionist superiors transferred all their novices to a remote monastery near Isola in the Abruzzi Mountains. Yet even there it was reported one day that a company of soldiers was coming to pillage the town. Most of the townsfolk fled to the mountains. The soldiers arrived, got drunk, and went about robbing buildings and burning houses.
Brother Gabriel got permission to go into town to see if he could help in any way. He encountered there a soldier who had seized a young girl. The soldier mocked the monk; but Gabriel quickly seized the man’s pistol, pointed it at him and ordered him to release the frightened girl. Another soldier then came up. Gabriel ordered him to hand over his pistol, and this he took in his other hand. More soldiers drew near, loaded down with booty. They seemed to think that an ordinary monk would not know how to use a gun on them. To prove the contrary, Gabriel shot at a lizard running nearby and made a direct hit. Eventually, the Passionist Brother forced the whole company to put down their booty, extinguish the fires they had set, and troop out of the village.
Recently, some pistol fans have asked the present pope to name St. Gabriel Possenti the patron saint of pistol-bearers. The Passionists have rightly rejected such a thought. Even if Gabriel knew how to use a gun in self-defense, he would surely have deplored showing any fondness for a weapon that has been used to assassinate Pope John Paul II and many other victims of modern terrorism.
After Brother Gabriel had saved their village, the people of Isola acclaimed him as their hero. Posterity would acclaim him a saint. He did indeed prove to be a “perfect Passionist.” St. Gabriel Possenti was canonized in 1920. A great crowd of cardinals and bishops attended the canonization. Although it was 58 years since the young saint’s death, three persons who had known him well attended the rite. One was his nurse of his last illness, and another was his own brother Michael Possenti. The third was none other than Maria Pannechetti, the girl he left behind him.
–Father Robert F. McNamara